Teaching Fellow Spotlight: Abby Stoa
by Hallie O’Neill
A year ago, Abby Stoa prepared for her first Breakthrough summer under extraordinary circumstances. She’d been placed as a Teaching Fellow in 7th grade writing, and as the pandemic progressed throughout the spring of 2020, she learned she’d have to teach her students virtually. It was her first major teaching experience — she was still a high school student herself — and the situation was unlike any other.
“I had a lot of preconceived notions about what teaching was, and then it was completely thrown out the window,” Abby said. For the first time, she delved deeply into the logistics of lesson planning, working closely with an Instructional Coach to deliver quality lessons to her students, with whom she could unfortunately only meet via a computer screen.
After a virtual summer of learning and building connections, Abby was able to keep in touch with her students in her position as a School Year Coach during the 20-21 academic year. She called and checked in with them once a month, forging bonds of support during a tough academic year. She also volunteered her time to review applications from the incoming Breakthrough class this past spring — it seems she just can’t get enough of BTC, fueled by the personal stories she read in student applications.
“Something about Breakthrough students is so inspiring to me,” she said. “They’re some of the most interesting people I’ve talked to, ever.” This summer, Abby will teach 7th grade writing again, and she’s looking forward to having a few more in-person opportunities to connect with her new student cohort.
Abby has felt called to be a teacher ever since she was in middle school, always knowing she was an extrovert with a need to help others. But Breakthrough, she says, really validated this calling and put it into action. Among other things, the culturally responsive approach to teaching she learned during the summer of 2020 completely transformed how she wants to approach her teaching career.
“One way I can relate to my students is knowing what it feels like to be in classrooms where your teacher never looks like you,” Abby said, reflecting on her own identity as an adoptee from China. “Being in a setting where there are a lot of Asian students, I hope that when they see me, they can see themselves, too.”
Abby graduated from Lakeville High School last month and plans to attend UW Madison this fall to study sociology before transitioning into a master’s program in secondary education. After that, she intends to continue working in schools and programs that focus on closing the opportunity gap for young students of color.
3M + STEM
by Hallie O’Neill
3M has long been a leader in funding STEM opportunities for young people and folks who are underrepresented in STEM and skilled trade fields. The corporation has supported Breakthrough as a core partner for over a decade, making many of our STEM-related initiatives possible.
“3M wants to support the next generation of scientists and engineers, so Breakthrough has been the perfect fit for us,” said Jacqueline Berry, Global Communications Manager at 3M.
Though 3M has been a consistent partner of BTC’s for much longer, the corporation set a new and groundbreaking goal this past spring: by the end of 2025, 3M will advance economic equity by creating five million unique STEM and skilled trades learning experiences for underrepresented individuals.
“To advance this goal, we want to invest in initiatives that give students hands-on experiences, just like Breakthrough,” said Berry. “Programs like this one encourage them to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world situations.”
And at BTC, these real-world applications are tangible. In Breakthrough’s summer program, middle school students receive 20 hours of STEM instruction (which is 50% of our core curriculum) over five weeks, and additional STEM experiences are available through elective courses chosen by the students. The courses offered encourage BTC students to think outside the box and be creative when it comes to STEM topics. In one course, students use science to explore the causes of climate change while also uncovering topics like environmental racism and justice; in another, students explore math as a creative field, practicing open-mindedness as they try various techniques to see how they learn math the best.
These courses wouldn’t be possible without our Teaching Fellows, half of whom teach STEM topics exclusively. As an organization, BTC reserves $300,000 of its budget to invest in STEM opportunities, with a part of this going towards Teaching Fellow training and preparation. Other initiatives include STEM-related field trips, guest speakers, and more — one summer, students even got to hear a presentation by a guest from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Neurology, who brought in human brains for an interactive activity.
3M’s continued support of BTC’s mission and students has been crucial as they continue to pave the way for other corporations by giving back to the community. Apart from investing in programs like BTC, other experiences included towards 3M’s goal will include scholarships, internships, volunteering opportunities, and more.
“Our ultimate goal is to support students and get them interested in and excited about STEM,” said Berry. “Our hope is that this effort will advance economic equity for all, leveling the pathway towards fulfilling and high-paying careers.”
From the Executive Director
by Josh Reimnitz
We are excited to be starting a fresh summer of learning and growth for our students and Teaching Fellows! This time of year has also brought on a lot of reflection as we close the school year and comprehend the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the tragic loss of George Floyd and ensuing uprisings, and the racially motivated incidents of violence against Asians and Asian-Americans. Throughout it all, Breakthrough maintained a sense of urgency to ensure that Breakthrough students felt supported.
One of the strengths of the Breakthrough model is students have the opportunity to be themselves. With individualized advising, coaching, and counseling, coupled with small and large group experiences, Breakthrough fosters a community in which students can be themselves.
Though the pain, processing, and difficulties unequally continue today, we have found ways to use these crises to cultivate growth and positive change. At Breakthrough, that means a comprehensive look at our practices to unlearn aspects of white supremacy culture within our organization and leadership, myself included. It means addressing our faculty’s stipends who give their all during the summer and deserve to be fairly compensated. And it means taking a difficult set of circumstances and finding ways to connect and reimagine how an already strong program can get even better.
We are excited to host a hybrid summer program that will be a mix of virtual learning and in-person activities – as being able to gather for community and the social-emotional building feels essential for how we collectively move forward. Also, despite setbacks from the pandemic, our Breakthrough class of 2021 finished strong and includes 78 graduating seniors – our largest class yet! Students are off to some of the most prestigious colleges, including Stanford, Yale, Duke, Carleton, Grinnell, and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
We look forward to sharing updates with you about the summer programming and heading back for more in-person learning opportunities in the fall.
Senior Spotlight: Twins!
by Hallie O’Neill
LAY LAY & LET LET:
Twin sisters Lay Lay and Let Let will move into their next chapter together as they both prepare to attend the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Lay Lay and Let Let were incredibly involved both inside and outside of school throughout their middle and high school years as Breakthrough students, participating in activities like the National Honor Society, Junior ROTC, dance, and other athletics, to name a few.
As high school juniors, Lay Lay and Let Let were accepted into the Breakthrough Student Representatives (BSR) program, where they had opportunities to speak about their experiences at important events. BSRs are expected to model the Breakthrough Codes, including Relish Hard Work Together, Live the Growth Mindset, and Persist, all of which Lay Lay and Let Let do extremely well—and all of which will be invaluable skills when they head to the U of M this fall.
The sisters were born in a Thailand refugee camp, and immigrated to the US with their parents at the age of seven. Their high school graduation, accolades, and college acceptances are testaments to their hard work and resilience. Lay Lay and Let Let have not only learned to navigate a new country, they have thrived as advocates for themselves and their family. Says Let Let, “Breakthrough has changed me as a person—to become a person who can help myself.”
TONY & ERIC WANG
For a duo who regularly participated in summer school simply “because it was fun,” it’s no surprise that Tony and Eric Wang will both be attending Yale University this fall.
Tony and Eric lived in China for the first five years of their lives before moving around through rural Minnesota and Wisconsin for a few years before settling in St. Paul. As they moved from school to school, they found it difficult to stay academically challenged. Then they became Breakthrough students, and new doors suddenly opened. To this day, past Teaching Fellows are some of the twins’ greatest role models. “The Teaching Fellows were knowledgeable enough to teach us, but they were relatable enough to be friends with,” Eric said. “It really opened my eyes, because school always seemed like a system to discipline kids. But Breakthrough’s system was really all about pursuing knowledge without your teachers imposing it on you.”
Seeing Teaching Fellows who were enrolled at prestigious colleges gave them the inspiration to aim high as well, seeing that these options weren’t impossible for students from first-generation, immigrant, and/or low-income backgrounds. When Tony was in 7th grade, for example, he told a TF that he dreamed of going to Stanford, and the TF replied with, “Yeah, you can absolutely do it.” Both Tony and Eric soon understood that they truly could.
In high school, both Tony and Eric were involved in robotics and tennis, among other extracurriculars like orchestra. They are excited for this next step, already knowing that Yale will be a perfect fit for both of their varied creative interests. Eric plans to explore cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology as possible majors, and Tony will start exploring and then choose between architecture, sociology, or visual arts. They both want to continue growing in their leadership skills and build a community at Yale that feels like a home away from home — and all the while, they’ll have each other to lean on.
Senior Spotlight: Full Ride to Duke
by Hallie O’Neill
As she graduates from Harding High School this spring, senior Tochi Onuegbu has a lot to look forward to, especially since having just recently accepted a full-ride scholarship to Duke University.
Tochi joined Breakthrough after hearing about the program from her older sister, another BTC alum. “Being involved with Breakthrough really helped me navigate the whole college process as a first-generation student,” Tochi said. As Nigerian immigrants, Tochi and her family weren’t familiar with the college preparation and application process in the US, and she cited BTC’s college counseling program as pivotal to her academic journey.
Tochi’s interests are boundless, and she plans to explore English, STEM, statistical sciences, and even biochemistry when she arrives on Duke’s campus this fall. The biggest thing she’ll miss about Breakthrough is the sense of community it provided for her, noting that the friends she made are connections she’ll carry with her throughout her lifetime. However, she knows that the values instilled in her by her family and the Breakthrough community will set her up for success as an undergraduate student next year.
“My parents have always wanted the best for me. That was the main reason why they came to America. I really worked hard throughout high school and throughout my whole academic career, and I think it paid off. Not only did I make them proud, but I made myself proud.”
by Kate Tucker
Allie Newman first learned of Breakthrough Twin Cities about the time of Y2K when she was the Director of Admission at Mounds Park Academy. At the time, Breakthrough was formulating its partnership with the school. While Allie moved on from MPA into the corporate world, she kept her pulse on what was happening with the newly formed organization and became a supporter. Several years later, Allie was asked to join the Board and is now serving in her second term.
When asked what’s kept Allie engaged over the years, she said, “I feel strongly as a person of color that I need to do my part to help close the achievement gap in MN – for my children, their friends, and for our community.” She noted that early data is showing the achievement gap is widening due to the pandemic. There’s a long road ahead, and Breakthrough can be part of the solution.
Allie also loves Breakthrough’s dual mission, where students teach students and simultaneously strive to advance the number of teachers of colors in US schools. “As Asian students, I wish my children had teachers of color who could be role models for them. My daughter had a Korean principal in elementary school, and it was such a fun connection for her and our family. In their current schools, my kids don’t have many role models of color. That was the very same for me – and I would have thought things would change over 40 years.”
Today, only 4.3% of Minnesota teachers identify as a person of color. As a Board member and supporter, Allie shared, “I’ve seen the results this program has on its’ alums and have heard firsthand what BTC graduates are doing in the world, and it’s significant. Several are changing their communities singlehandedly.”
Allie’s husband, Justin, is a middle school teacher in Eastern Carver County (ECC). Beginning in 2017, they began bringing educator friends and community influencers to Breakthrough’s annual gala. Together with those friends, Justin introduced Breakthrough to the district because they saw the program’s ability to serve its talented yet under-resourced students, which they view as a solution to help close the achievement gap. The district agreed and formed a partnership between Breakthrough and ECC. Breakthrough would open a third site in the western metro in 2020.
Not only has the ECC district provided space for the program to take place, but it’s also investing in a portion of funding to make it possible. However, Breakthrough needed funds upfront to launch the site, so in that same year, Breakthrough received more than $500,000 from the Cargill Foundation, and the first virtual cohort began amidst the pandemic. The gift from Cargill Inc., Allie’s employer, is the largest grant in the organization’s history. The expansion into Eastern Carver County is mainly due to Allie and Justin’s deeply rooted belief in helping all students unlock their achievement potential and, by doing so, create a better future for generations to come.
From the Executive Director
by Josh Reimnitz
Hello and Happy New Year!
We’re so excited to share Breakthrough Twin Cities news with you in this new monthly format! Breaking Through will spotlight our collective BTC community, serving as a window into the incredible group of students, Teaching Fellows, alumni, supporters, staff, and board who make up Breakthrough. You’ll hear stories and updates about our work, as well as insights into why BTC is needed in the Twin Cities.
Last year was challenging in many respects, but BTC was committed to learning, adapting, and growing through that difficulty. You may know we work to cultivate and reinforce strong character traits in BTC students and Teaching Fellows through our Codes for Success. We use these same Codes as a staff and, in 2020, we had to lean on a couple of our Codes for Success more than in the past; specifically, Relish Hard Work Together and Persist.
Through that hard work and persistence, I see Breakthrough Twin Cities emerging stronger than ever in 2021! We’ve all had to adapt over the last year, and BTC is taking that need to shift and using it as an opportunity to transform and, in video game speak, level up. We find new ways to communicate with our students and families and stay connected with the broader BTC community that will last beyond the pandemic. We are evaluating every aspect of our programming and organization to be a genuinely anti-racist organization that supports students and aspiring educators now while also bucking a system that’s structured to hold them back. Some of these changes will take time, while others we have already implemented.
I’m so excited for the year ahead and for you to be involved in the vital work we’re doing to level the playing field and allow remarkable students to reach their fullest potential. We’ll keep you informed through this publication and our regular e-newsletter, but if there are more ways you would like to be engaged, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We need a large community to achieve the results we’re seeking, and your involvement is essential in attaining that success.
Thank you for being involved in Breakthrough Twin Cities and its impact on the wonderful and deserving youth of our community!
Welcome Maya Ziegler
In December, Breakthrough welcomed a new Program Director to the team, Maya Zeigler. While she’s new to Breakthrough, she’s devoted her career to education and nonprofit management. Maya’s path started as a middle school KIPP student. She said, “I didn’t realize it was unique to stay connected to middle school teachers until I got to college and started realizing that was not the case for everyone. KIPP opened up a lot of opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to, and for which I remain grateful.” These reflections set a fire in her to devote her energy to paying it forward for other students.
Throughout her career, Maya’s worn various hats, from working in a classroom as an AmeriCorps service member to creating curriculum and nonprofit program management. She’s thrilled to be bringing her experiences to Breakthrough, an organization that closely aligns with her values. Looking ahead, Maya is excited to dive into the recruitment process for Teaching Fellows and planning for Summer 2021 programming. She’s passionate about attracting teachers of color to the field and serving students. This belief stems back to her own experience serving as a Teaching Fellow for a similar organization in college. The energy of being in an intensive student-teaching-student model is unmatched to anything else she’s encountered, and she can’t wait to see it in action at Breakthrough.
On a personal note, Maya is from Philadelphia but dislikes Philly Cheese Steaks. She will, though, tell you the right places to go if that is your sort of thing. Join us for a Zoom coffee with Maya on Thursday, January 21 to have a chance to meet her yourself!